Ah, summer. The season of intellectual light lifting, of beach reading and crowd-pleasing museum shows, welcome respites from heat and headlines alike. Between WorldCom and Nasdaq and Al Qaeda, these are times that try Norte Americano souls. And so while there is no ideal moment for a show like De Agua y de Luna: Silver Sculptures From Mexico, the Meadows Museum's new offering, it is perhaps a suitable one.
Since it opened in its new digs last year, the Meadows has seemed to envision itself less as a real museum than as Big D's cultural ambassador, a promoter of Spanish tourism and designer bridges. This time the Meadows is reaching out to Mexico with a little help from its newest friend, TANE Orfebres, a Mexican silversmithing concern that sells its wares in retail stores throughout Mexico. About 25 years ago, some PR whiz at TANE hit upon the idea of inviting Mexico's best living painters, architects and sculptors to work in silver, creating original works that TANE would peddle in stores as limited editions. TANE provided the working space, materials and technical expertise, not to mention, one presumes, a healthy royalty. The results are now on view in the Meadows' temporary exhibition galleries.
In short, the exhibition is a PR event from start to gilt finish, the "collection" crassly commercial and self-serving. And so what? It's summer, and it's all done in relatively good taste, and it's more honest than most museum offerings, certainly more so than your average certified audit. The catalog is slick and vacuous, with text that reads like what it is, a cross between magic realism and bad ad copy. Gregory Warden, the Meadows' interim director, even injects a note of seriousness, alluding to, and neatly sidestepping, certain knotty problems the show presents. Before abandoning the reader to crimes of prose, Warden writes of the "tension between artistic worth and intrinsic value, two forms of desire, that serves as a major theme of this exhibit" (a major theme, of course, not addressed in the show itself), as well as the "ironies of history and collecting" inherent in TANE's project.
Ironies indeed; the very history of silver in Mexico carries a colonial tarnish. When Cortés made his way to the Aztec capital in 1519, he found the marketplace filled with artisans skilled in working with silver and gold. The Aztec emperor Montezuma II showered Cortés with gifts of silver and gold, a display of generosity and expertise that helped assure the Aztecs' subjugation. Over the next three centuries, the Spanish forced the natives to labor in underground mines and exported the precious bullion to Europe. Natives were barred from working as craftsmen for a time and were later forced to adopt Spanish working methods and styles. Although Mexican goldsmithing flourished after independence, silver production continued to languish until the 20th century. It was a gringo, William Spratling, who restarted the trade in native silverwork during the '20s and '30s, and who was single-handedly responsible for reviving Taxco's silver industry. But much of this production was hackwork, destined for the tourist trade; for most of the 20th century, "Mexican silver" was a derogatory term. Certainly it was not a material for serious artistes, especially after the 1917 Mexican revolution. It wasn't just a matter of cost, or of the tendency of precious metal to upstage artistic value. Mexican artists and intellectuals of the early 20th century prided themselves on using humble, indigenous materials and disdained bourgeois forms of collecting and displays.
But enough reality. By the last third of the 20th century, the popularity of silver crafts had divested the metal of some of its colonial stench. TANE's collection dates from the mid-'70s, with the earliest pieces, including Sjolander Waldemar's sensuous pen-woman and Leonora Carrington's surreal anthropomorphic cow, dating from 1975. More than half of the works were executed between 1975 and 1984. There are fewer than a dozen pieces from the '90s and approximately eight commissioned during the past two years.
Organizers of the show suggest it tells a story, and it does, though billing it as a "stroll through several decades of creation at the end of the 20th century" is somewhat deceptive. This show is by no means an overview of Mexican art during the past three decades. It contains no hint of the new generation of internationalists, or of the conceptualists whose work fills the international biennales. There is no word-based work, and TANE's interest in silver does not extend to silver emulsion, nor to the silver screen, nor for that matter any form of risk-taking. The result is a collection of minor tchotchkes by blue-chip Mexican masters, work that was passé even when it was commissioned.
This is not necessarily bad. The selections present a virtual overview of the Mexican Canon in the decades following World War II. We see the trends that have made their way into art-historical surveys: the emphasis on geometric, abstract and constructivist art, the Tamayo-style formalism, the apolitical tendencies, the neo-figurists, the first generation of Mexican internationalists. Although Tamayo himself is conspicuous by his absence, his followers are well-represented, with selections from the likes of Pedro Coronel and Francisco Toledo, as well as contributions by Tamayo's contemporaries, figures such as Carlos Merida, Mathias Goeritz and his protégé, Jose Luis Cuevas. The surrealist impulse behind Mexican abstraction is abundantly in evidence, and museumgoers are treated to a delightful surfeit of unlikely creatures, from Pedro Weisz's tiny fish with six trousered and loafered man-legs to Mario Martin del Campo's mandolin dog.
Unfortunately, the show does a poor job of relating objects to developments in Mexican art, much less tracing the myriad influences that shaped these developments. Once again, this is especially disappointing, for few institutions are as well-equipped to explore these questions as the Meadows. Yet this is an exhibition that abandons even the slightest pretense of intellectual or art-historical justification. Instead we are treated to fatuous fake histories of fantastic creatures and wiseass pearls of wisdom like "never judge [the gender of] a fish by its footwear," and side galleries of sauceboats and cutlery.
But what did I expect? It's summer, and it beats watching the Nasdaq.
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